Canadian air drops 'save lives', avoid risky Afghan roads
Matthew Fisher, CanWest News Service
Published: Sunday, September 30, 2007
ABOVE GHORAK, Afghanistan - Canada has begun making dramatic air drops from CC-130 Hercules aircraft to troops in hostile territory to spare the lives of convoy crews that would otherwise face a long and perilous land journey to carry out the same mission.
During one such flight last week, a four-engine Hercules turboprop popped over the crest of a spectacularly beautiful mountain range before making a dramatic rock-and-roll lunge down toward a purple smoke marker on the desert floor below. Seemingly defying gravity, the 33-year old pilot, Capt. Aidan Costelloe, forced the nose of his aircraft up at the last possible moment and seven tonnes of urgently needed food, water, fuel and ammo rolled out the back door. Several parachutes that were attached quickly opened and the load floated to the ground.
Not long after getting back to the home airfield at Kandahar, the air crew received word from those on the ground at Ghorak - a small group of Canadian troops mentoring Afghan security forces - that the drop had been a success.
Except for a few cases of water, which had ruptured, the cargo had landed on target, in good condition and, quite literally, at the exact second it was supposed to.
The rationale for sometimes using air drops to supply troops in remote locations is clear. More than half of the 71 Canadian deaths in Afghanistan have been caused by suicide bombers or improvised explosive devices that have struck Canadian vehicles. Many of those deaths have occurred on resupply convoys.
"This saves lives, big time. To not use this resource if it is available would be a crime," said Lt.-Col. Nicolas Eldaoud, who oversees the Canadian Forces' immensely complicated logistics chain in Central Asia from the main base at Kandahar. "Every time we have an air drop, it means we don't need to send out a combat logistics patrol that puts my soldiers in harm's way."
Sgt. Rob Gearns, who as loadmaster ran the air drop at the back of the Hercules, agreed.
"What the convoys do is very dangerous and we can eliminate that by delivering cargo right to their doorstep," the 43-year-old Hamiltonian said. "We will do this for any NATO nation that asks, but there is extra meaning when do it for the Canadians because they can see the Maple Leaf on our tail when we fly past."
The air drops are not, however, without risks. The relatively slow and awkward Hercules are purpose-built for such tactical missions but they present quite a big target, no matter how well they are flown.
"Essentially we establish a run-in track, come in as quick as we can, slow down suddenly to drop the cargo and then get out fast," Capt. Costelloe, who is also from Hamilton, said after the flight. "Everything is about limiting our exposure to ground fire as much as we can."
Surprisingly, the air crew and those waiting on the ground seldom speak with each other.
"They know the game plan. We know the game plan. So there is no need for us to talk with each other," Gearns said. "We saw the smoke they threw and that was enough. We try to keep everything as simple as we can."
In order to keep the enemy guessing, the flight profiles and drop points always vary, as do the timings for such runs, which can also be conducted at night. Although Canada made a few such air drops to troops here last year, doing so regularly only became possible last month when several Canadian Hercules were based at Kandahar for the first time. Before that they were located at an airfield several hours away in the Middle East.
The move has been welcomed by the Van Doos battle group, which has already placed several emergency resupply orders with the air force. It has also been a boon to NATO which, with 36,000 troops here, has many pressing in-theatre transport requirements in what is a complex, crowded flying environment that includes dust storms, fast air (fighters and bombers) and slow air (transport planes, drones and helicopters).
Canadian, British and American Hercules aircraft now run a regular passenger and cargo service from Kandahar to International Security and Assistance Force (ISAF) headquarters in Kabul. They also make frequent, sometimes hairy landings at remote dirt strips to resupply combat troops from half a dozen countries.
"This is all part of the job, but for us air drops are special and, from an air crew standpoint, we would like to do as many as we can. That's our bread-and-butter and the need out there is sometimes critical," said Capt. Costelloe, who like Gearns has already served several 56-day tours in support of Canadian operations in Afghanistan. "For us, it means a chance to live and breathe the mission over here. It is the most challenging and energizing flying I've done in my career."
The Kandahar air detachment's boss, Capt. Stephen McLean, 38, of Ottawa, who is also a Hercules pilot, said basing Canadian aircraft in Afghanistan had already produced many benefits.
"We are now much more involved in ISAF operations," McLean said. "Whenever we do anything it means they can free up a helicopter to do something else.
I have the feeling we will be getting a lot more calls, not just from the Canadians but from ISAF."
© CanWest News Service